I’ve been reading John Reed’s wonderful book, Ten Days That Shook The World, about the Russian revolution. Writing in July 1917, Reed refers to the Bolsheviks as being still only ‘a small political sect’. I couldn’t but smile when I read the footnote the book’s publishers had added to this description: ‘Reed uses the word “sect” wanting to underscore that immediately after the March 1917 Democratic-Bourgeois Revolution, the Bolshevik Party, which had just come out of hiding, was still relatively small.’
Despite this clarification, the truth is that the Bolsheviks were just that: a sect, a small group of revolutionaries, who through the strength of their audacity and tenacity would change the history of humanity. The important issue lies in that they would have to do it sooner rather than later: only three months later, in October. How was this possible? This is where Reed’s book’s historic value comes to the fore. This may serve as a taster: ‘In July they were harassed and spurned; in September the workers in the capital, the marines of the Baltic Fleet and the soldiers had in their majority embraced their cause.’
Today, despite the best attempts of many throughout the decades, no one can convince us that the Bolsheviks were predestined to lead the Russian revolution. It is clear that in revolutions, vanguards, leaders and movements play a role. But so does uncertainty, chance and surprise. In fact, leaders are tested precisely at these times when indecision and perplexity reign. That’s why it is said that revolutionary countries always ‘sense’ the moment to act and how.
Nothing is written
Those of us who are activists in the Bolivarian revolution have been wasting our time if at this stage we are not able to understand that nothing is written. We were getting used to winning; and as we were always faced with the task of beating the adversary, we postponed the struggle within the movement, as if Chávismo were one and indivisible, headed by an infallible leader.
The constitutional reform referendum defeat on 2 December, which I’ll now refer to as ‘2D’, has taken our side by surprise. We could obviously evaluate and determine what the main causes of this defeat were. But the result, without a doubt, has surprised us all: Chávismo was always sure of victory, even when it thought it would be tight.
The challenge we now therefore have within the Bolivarian camp, within the government, that Chávez himself has, but most importantly that we have within democratic, revolutionary, grassroots Chávismo, is to know how to deal with this surprise. That is precisely what the political moment that opened up following 2D consists of.
Of course revolutionary leadership does not depend exclusively on the capacity to act with audacity and aptitude in the face of chance and surprise. On the contrary, it depends on the ability to become the advocate and defender of demands from the grassroots.
John Reed himself recounts that the efficacy of the policy that the Bolsheviks implemented in the weeks preceding the October revolution lay in the way that ‘they took the simple and vague desires of the workers, soldiers and peasants, and with this built their immediate programme’ – all power to the soviets, peace on all fronts, land for the peasants, worker control in industry.
The people’s reform
On 3 December 2006, following the annmouncement of his comprehensive victory in the presidential elections, Chávez addressed those gathered at the Miraflores presidential palace: ‘Today is a starting point, today … a new era begins … [It] will have as its central aim … as its central strategic line, the deepening, the widening and the expansion of the Bolivarian revolution, of revolutionary democracy, in the Venezuelan path to socialism.’
A few minutes earlier he had said: ‘You have re-elected yourselves; the people are in control. I will always lead obeying the Venezuelan people.’ Chávez also made a call to increase the battle ‘against the bureaucratic counter-revolution and against corruption, old vices which have always threatened the republic.’ We were all convinced we had achieved a new and resounding ‘people’s’ victory.
On 17 January 2007, as he swore in the members of the presidential commission for constitutional reform, Chávez reminded people that, as stipulated in the Bolivian constitution, three entities are allowed to propose a constitutional reform: the president, the national assembly and the people. Chávez said he had opted for the first convinced that he was ‘interpreting and collecting the feeling of the majorities’.
Seven months later, on 15 August 2007, in his speech presenting the constitutional reform proposal to the national assembly, Chávez expressed himself in very similar terms: ‘The reform belongs to the people, it doesn’t belong to Chávez. I am sure that our people will embrace it; everything I am going to say is said with the Venezuelan people and their most sacred interests in mind, and thinking of our revolution and its strengthening.’
If anything has been made clear by 2D it is that what could effectively have been ‘the reform of the people’ was in reality Chávez’s reform. It is true that during his speech on 15 August Chávez reiterated the need to initiate the ‘great debate on the Bolivarian reform’. It is equally true that the national assembly was far from being the catalysing space for this debate. The PSUV [United Socialist Party of Venezuela] wasn’t either. The PSUV’s ‘battalion assemblies’ were conceived as instruments to disseminate and defend the reform proposal, but at no point as a space where the reform could be criticised, corrected or supplemented.
Nevertheless, the key to the 2D defeat lies in the fact that a basic rule of revolutionary politics was missing: ‘It is the people who rule.’ That same people, who in Chávez’s words, were re-elected in December 2006; the same people he swore he would obey while leading. These people were not called on to participate in the creation of the reform proposal. This is why a considerable sector of Chávismo never made Chávez’s proposal their own. And this is why another important sector opted only to critically support the proposal.
There has been much debate, both before and after 2D, about the reform’s content. Some of us pointed out that one of the problematic aspects of Chávez’s proposal was the concentration of powers in the figure of the president. Indeed, the idea of the infallible leader is one that has been promoted by the right wing of Chávismo, a right wing that could eventually opt to get rid of Chávez himself once its main objective – to isolate democratic and revolutionary grass-roots Chávismo – has been achieved. At the same time, though, many of us opted to support a proposal that had enough in its content to turn it into a programme for grass-roots struggles.
Nevertheless, this debate should not distract us from the most important point: if the reform proposal had been the product of grass-roots participation and protagonism, there is no doubt that the content would have been different, much closer to the demands and desires of revolutionary grass-roots Chávismo. Had this occurred, the result of 2D would undoubtedly have been favourable for those of us who struggle for the democratic radicalisation of the Bolivarian process.
Today there is talk of relaunching the reform proposal, not from the presidency but from the grassroots or the national assembly. And the convening of a constituent national assembly has not been discounted. Given the national assembly’s lack of legitimacy and popular support, there would, in principle, seem to be two alternatives: reform by grass-roots initiative or via a constituent process.
Whichever route is followed, it is clear that if we repeat the same exclusionary logic that bypassed the grassroots last time, any future proposal could suffer similar resistance. If we insist on promoting the same reform proposal through a flawed ‘grass-roots initiative’, we could be making a tactical error of incalculable proportions.
But these tactical considerations are merely the tip of the iceberg.
Underneath is a giant that lay dormant under the troubled waters of 2D: grass-roots Chávismo, the only guarantee of the revolutionary deepening of the Bolivarian process. 2D found us dispersed, such as we had not been in many years. But from the very morning of 3 December the multitude that makes up grass-roots Chávismo has been the protagonist of an effervescent process of deliberation that the most conservative sectors of Chávismo will find very hard to silence. The sleeping giant has awoken and before it lies the opportunity to become more than just a ‘small political sect’. John Reed dixit.